What can you do when a global pandemic cuts your best-laid career plans short? 

An August report in Time Magazine indicated that 40 million jobs were lost at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and 42 percent of them are likely gone forever. If yours counts among the lost, your best bet for finding a replacement might be to aim your career trajectory towards one of the sectors that are growing exponentially, such as artificial intelligence. 

AI has increasingly made its mark on business over the last few decades. One recent report listed nine different industries that have already been, or soon will be, majorly impacted by AI — from manufacturing and transportation to education and retail. By 2022, one in five employees can expect to be partnered with AI; studies estimate that as many as 65 percent of the students currently in school will wind up taking jobs that do not exist at present.

With jobs disappearing and technological disruption steamrolling in from the horizon, companies and workers alike have been forced to ask themselves — how can they reorganize their old skillsets for an AI-savvy job market? 

Upskilling is the most obvious and promising method at hand. By retraining workers for the future economy, employers ensure their employees stay ahead of the curve and maintain relevance amid the widespread disruption. If you have been furloughed, you may be able to take advantage of company-provided learning opportunities as part of your return to the office. 

Amazon and AT&T, for instance, have made sizable commitments to retraining initiatives. The latter company discovered that half its 250,000 employees required STEM training before shifting to new positions. 

Other companies offer education as a benefit, where they agree to pay for employees’ schooling. Amazon, for example, provides education opportunities and certification programs for employees transitioning out of the company through its Machine Learning University and further enables current workers to hone their software-development talents at Amazon Technical Academy.

Of course, many workers who have lost their jobs to the pandemic likely will not have access to corporate upskilling initiatives, nor the time and resources to go (back) to college — but that lack doesn’t leave them bereft of options.

Today, intensive academic boot camps offer working professionals the opportunity to gain marketable tech skills at a low cost within three to six months. While this type of program is best known for teaching software development, boot camps for AI adjacent sectors such as digital marketing, UX, and cybersecurity are also available. 

According to recent market reports, boot camps graduated 33,959 learners in 2019 and, as of the summer of 2019, were available in no less than 71 US cities and 38 states. 

Such programs are often well-regarded by employers. Seventy-two percent of hiring managers surveyed by HackerRank say that Bootcamp-trained professionals are “equally or better equipped for the job than other hires” and often have other desirable traits, such as a penchant for learning new skills quickly and an eagerness to take on new responsibilities. 

While it would be overly optimistic to say that a tech boot camp could fully prepare laid-off workers for a job in AI, upskilling programs may help them reframe their skills within a more tech-friendly context. 

“One of the big obstacles in a job interview, when you’re older, is that people think you’re inflexible and can’t learn new things,” Liz Beagle-Bryant, a former administrative assistant who was laid off from her job at Microsoft in 2011, told reporters for The New York Times

While Beagle-Bryant struggled to find a new job, she eventually landed her dream role as a document control coordinator at the public transit agency Sound Transit. The key to her success? Learning to code. 

“Coding gave me an edge. I developed a confidence I didn’t have before,” Beagle-Bryant explained. 

As Beagle-Bryant’s experience demonstrates, not all professionals need to pivot their careers to suit a highly technical, AI-focused role. Instead, they need to obtain a sturdy foundation of technical skills and recontextualize their existing experience to do jobs that would require them to interface with AI and other highly-technical platforms. 

While those entering the AI field for the first time would do well to have earned a degree in computer science or mathematics, tech giants like Apple and Google no longer see college degrees as being essential. Instead, it is a matter of having “curiosity, confidence and perseverance,” as Microsoft executive Dan Ayoub told Best Colleges, as well as adaptability to the ever-evolving field.

In other words, soft skills still matter at least as much as hard skills. The professional talents you’ve gained over a lifetime of working still have tangible value — you just need to reorganize them within a more tech-savvy skill set. Abilities like creativity, the ability to solve complex problems, and the ability to think critically will continue to be valued. Workers can gain the necessary technical skills by leveraging corporate upskilling programs, independently earning certifications, or enrolling in Bootcamp-style educations. 

As significant an impact as AI is having at present, it will only grow over time. Those who grasp that — who show curiosity, confidence, and perseverance — stand to put themselves in the best possible position to work with AI in their professional careers, rather than against it. Opportunities come through change, whether we want that change or not. AI-related careers can be a strong option for those affected by Covid-19, potentially opening up even better careers in the future.